Estate Planning Checklist

Dying without an estate plan creates additional costs and eliminates any chance your wishes for loved ones will be followed after your death. Typically, people think about a will when they marry or have children, and then do not think about wills or estate plans until they retire. While a will is important, there are other estate planning documents that are just as important, says the recent article “10 Steps to Writing a Will” from U.S. News & World Report.  To help identify those needs, I prepared an estate planning checklist which you can find below.

Most assets, including retirement accounts and insurance policy proceeds, can be transferred to heirs outside of a will, if they have designated beneficiaries. However, the outcome of an estate may be more impacted by Power of Attorney for financial matters and Medical Power of Attorney documents.  To help figure out what you may need, you can use this article as an estate planning checklist.

Here are nine specific tasks that need to be completed for your estate plan to be effective. The documents should be prepared based upon your state’s law with the help of a qualified estate planning attorney.

  1. Find an estate planning attorney who is experienced with the laws of your state.
  2. Select beneficiaries for your estate plan.
  3. Check beneficiaries on non-probate assets to make sure they are current.
  4. Decide who will be the fiduciaries named in your estate plan (e.g. executor, trustee)
  5. Name a guardian for minor children, if yours are still young.

There are also tasks for your own care while you are living, in case of incapacity:

  1. Name a person for the Power of Attorney role. They will be your representative for legal and financial matters, but only while you are living.
  2. Name a person for the Medical Power of Attorney to make decisions on your behalf, if you cannot.
  3. Create a Directive to Physicians (Living Will), to explain your wishes for medical care, particularly concerning end-of-life care.
  4. Tell the these people that you have chosen them and discuss these roles and their responsibilities with them if you are ready

As you go through your estate planning checklist, be realistic about the people you are naming to serve as fiduciaries. If you have a child who is not good with managing money, a trust can be set up to distribute assets according to your wishes: by age or accomplishments, like finishing college, going to rehab, or maintaining a steady work history, and they should not be in charge of your money.

Do not forget to tell family members where they can find your last will and other estate documents. You should also talk with them about your digital assets. If accounts are protected by passwords or facial recognition, find out if the digital platform has a process for your executor to legally obtain access to your digital assets.

Finally, do not neglect updating your estate plan every three to four years or anytime you have a major life event. An estate plan is like a house: it needs regular maintenance. Old estate plans can disinherit family members or lead to the wrong person being in charge of your estate.  See this article for my ideas as to when to update your estate plan and what to consider.  You might find reviewing the estate planning checklist helpful at that time as well.  https://www.galliganmanning.com/when-to-update-your-estate-plan/

An experienced estate planning attorney will make the process easier and straightforward for you and your loved ones.

Reference: U.S. News & World Report (May 13, 2021) “10 Steps to Writing a Will”

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Can I Protect My Estate with Life Insurance?

Life insurance is a powerful estate planning tool which protects the estate by providing liquidity to preserve assets and to pay estate taxes and expenses.

With proper planning, insurance money can pay expenses, such as estate tax and keep other assets intact, says FedWeek’s article entitled “Protect Your Estate With Life Insurance.”

The article provides the story of “Bill” as an example. He dies and leaves a large estate to his daughter Julia. There are significant estate taxes due. However, most of Bill’s assets are tied up in real estate and an IRA. Julia may not want to hurry into a forced sale of the real estate. If she taps the inherited IRA to raise cash, she’ll be forced to pay income tax on the withdrawal and lose a valuable opportunity for extended tax deferral.

A wise move for Bill would be to purchase life insurance on his own life. The policy’s proceeds could be used to pay the estate tax bill. Julia will then be able to keep the real estate, while taking only the Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) from the inherited IRA. It might make sense if Julia owns the insurance policy or it’s owned by a trust as well.  See here for more details on how that might work for you.  https://www.galliganmanning.com/trust-owned-life-insurance-in-your-estate-plan/

However, there are a few common life insurance errors that can damage an estate plan:

Designating the estate as beneficiary. If you make this move, you put the policy proceeds in your estate, where the money will be exposed to estate tax and your creditors. Your executor will also have additional paperwork, if your estate is the beneficiary. Instead, be certain to name the appropriate beneficiaries.

Designating a single beneficiary. Name at least two “backup” or contingency beneficiaries. This will eliminate some confusion in the event the primary beneficiary should predecease you.

Designating your revocable trust.  If estate taxes aren’t a concern and you use a trust-based estate plan, sometimes designating your trust as a beneficiary is a great idea as it provides liquidity to your family for estate expenses.

Placing your life insurance in the “file and forget” file. Be sure to review your policies at least once every three years. If the beneficiary is an ex-spouse or someone who has passed away, you need to make the appropriate change and get a confirmation, in writing, from your life insurance company.

Inadequate insurance. You may not have enough life insurance. If you have a young child, it may require hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay all of his or her expenses, such as college tuition and expenses, in the event of your untimely death. Skimping on insurance may hurt your surviving family. You also don’t need to be so thrifty, because today’s term insurance costs are very low.

As you can see, life insurance may be a powerful estate tool.  Speak with your advisor and your estate planning attorney on how best to incorporate life insurance in your estate plan.

Reference: FedWeek (June 11, 2020) “Protect Your Estate With Life Insurance”

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Common Mistakes Made on Beneficiary Designations

Assets like life insurance, retirement accounts and annuities are governed by beneficiary designations.
Assets like life insurance, retirement accounts and annuities are governed by beneficiary designations which override your will.

Many accounts and other assets are governed by beneficiary designations. Examples include life insurance, 401(k)s, IRAs, and annuities. These assets rely on contractual provisions with the financial institution to designate who receives the benefits upon the death of the owner.

Kiplinger’s recent article entitled “Beneficiary Designations – The Overlooked Minefield of Estate Planning” describes several mistakes that people make with beneficiary designations and some ideas on how to avoid problems for you and your family members.

Believing that Your Will is More Powerful Than It Really Is. Many people mistakenly think that their will takes precedence over a beneficiary designation form. This is not true. Your will controls the disposition of assets in your “probate” estate. However, the accounts with contractual beneficiary designations aren’t governed by your will because they pass outside of probate. That is why you need to review your beneficiary designations whenever you review your estate plan.

Allowing Accounts to Fall Through the Cracks. Inattention is another thing that can lead to unintended outcomes. A prior employer 401(k) account can be what is known as “orphaned,” which means that the account stays with the former employer and isn’t updated to reflect the account holder’s current situation. It’s not unusual to forget about an account you started at your first job and fail to update the primary beneficiary, which could be a former spouse.

Not Having a Contingency Plan. Another thing people don’t think about is that a beneficiary may predecease them. It is important to name a contingent or secondary beneficiary in the event the first beneficiary is not survivig.

Not Paying Attention to a Per Stirpes Election. If a person names several beneficiaries (such as children) as primary beneficiaries to share equally in the account or life insurance policy at the owner’s death, what happens if one of the beneficiaries is not surviving? Some beneficiary designation forms state that the deceased beneficiary’s share automatically goes to the other surviving beneficiaries. Other beneficiary designation forms give the owner the option to state that the deceased beneficiary’s share should pass to the deceased beneficiary’s children. This is known as a per stirpes election. Many times people are unaware as to which option they have chosen on the beneficiary designation form.

Naming a Minor or Incapacitated Person as a Beneficiary. If a minor or incapacitated person is named as beneficiary, unless the beneficiary designation form allows for the appointment of a custodian or trustee to accept the benefits on behalf of the minor or incapacitated person, a court-appointed guardian may be necessary for the minor or incapaciated person to receive the benefits. Also keep in mind that if an incapaciated person you’ve named as beneficiary is receiving government benefits, distributions from a retirement account, annuity, or life insurance policy, may jeopardize his or her eligiblity to receive the government benefits.

It’s smart to retain copies of all communications when updating beneficiary designations in hard copy or electronically. These copies of correspondence, website submissions and received confirmations from account administrators should be kept with your estate planning documents in a safe location.

Remember that you should review your estate plan and beneficiary designations every few years to make sure that they are coordinated and that they say what your really want.

You may also be interested in https://www.galliganmanning.com/trust-owned-life-insurance-in-your-estate-plan/.

Reference: Kiplinger (March 4, 2020) “Beneficiary Designations – The Overlooked Minefield of Estate Planning”

 

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